Roger Federer regards this time of the year as a turning point in the season. The Australian Open is great – he has won it five times – and winning the French Open in 2009 was a treasured moment because he completed his career Grand Slam. But this is when it gets serious.
This is when tennis returns to its roots, its grass roots. And this is when Federer’s eyes light up. This is the halfway point in the season; the clay court boys have had their turn and now the pace quickens in the chase to the end-of-year rankings.
It was certainly like that for Andy Murray last year. True enough, he had a blistering clay court run in 2016 but as soon as his toes hit the green, green grass of south west London, he turned into the unstoppable force and over six months of sinew-snapping effort, he made his way to the top of the rankings ladder.
He is still there today, but the wolves are gathering. Rafael Nadal has banked the best part of 4,000 points since January and now sits in second place, a little over 2,600 points behind Murray. Fortunately for Murray and his place in the pecking order, the French Open champion is taking a well-earned rest after winning his tenth title in Roland Garros – he cannot make ground until the start of Wimbledon.
Murray, meanwhile, will be busting a gut at the Aegon Championships at Queen’s Club. Yes, it is only a warm-up event for Wimbledon but it is his happiest hunting ground. He has won the title five times, more than any other man in the tournament’s history, and now he wants to break his own record. La Decima for Nadal in Paris, La Sexto for Murray in London? Maybe.
There was a time before Murray came along when nobody thought that a British man could ever win at Roland Garros. In those grim days, the French Open was regarded as no more than a warm-up for the grass court season: the world revolved around Wimbledon and little else mattered.
Now, though, Murray has shown that he can cut it on the red clay. Last year he reached the final in Paris, this year he was four points away from repeating the feat. And when he did get to that final, he turned on his heel and headed for home to win Queen’s and Wimbledon. He may have his sights set on lifting La Coupe des Mousquetaires one day but deep down, he still thinks like the Britons of old: a decent run in France can set him up nicely for the grass.
“Often when I have done well on the clay, I feel like that’s helped me a little bit on the grass,” he said after losing to Stan Wawrinka in Paris nine days ago. “Certainly the matches are not as physical, so going through matches like I did today is a good step for me.
“I do feel like having an event like this can give me a boost and hopefully have a strong grass court season and try to understand what worked well in this event and what worked well in the sort of 10 days in the build-up and the practices. And make sure I continue to do that throughout the year, not make any mistakes with my preparation or my training, and hopefully I finish the year strong.”
Murray spent a little over two and a half weeks in Paris and in that time, he turned his year around. Struggling for form and motivation since the start of the season, he gradually started to play like the man who won all but three matches in the second half of 2016.
Some of the tennis was not pretty but he kept racking up the wins until he got to the semi-final. There he and Wawrinka produced the match of the tournament: Wawrinka’s bludgeoning aggression against Murray’s relentless defence. Murray lost in the end but he knew he was back on track. With no time to waste, he headed for London and was out on the practice courts again on Monday morning.
Tomorrow, the Queen’s Club event will lurch into life and Murray has 500 ranking points to defend. More importantly, he has the chance to gather momentum, to build on the confidence he gained in Paris. The weather forecast is good, he can commute from the sanctuary of his home and now all he has to do is play.
The draw has put him up against Aljaz Bedene in the first round and potentially Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarter-finals and either Marin Cilic or Nick Kyrgios in the semi-finals. Milos Raonic, last year’s runner-up, is in the bottom half of the draw along with Wawrinka.
Federer, who plays in Halle this week, believes that this is the start of the more important half of the year – and having been in 10 Wimbledon finals and won seven of them, he knows a thing or two about playing on grass. Murray and his supporters sincerely hope he is right.